Recent attention to the fine McQueen/Ridley “12 Years a Slave” invites us to consider the harrowing instability of even the most personal elements of our existence. In the film, a free black man living in a community where he has no expectations of abduction is seized and enslaved, then must struggle for over a decade to maintain his spirit until he can be identified, freed again and allowed to return to his family and life as he had once known it. If Solomon Northrup’s original chronicle weren’t so specific and persuasive, we might be inclined to skepticism concerning both the mercurial nature of our species and the victim’s strength of character. But stuff happens, and our early history offers many such appalling stories, including one which many of us have bypassed, ignored or been unable to extract from its distracting narrative environment. Recently, I was shocked into awareness as I discovered the details page by page.
The great voyage of Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery has long ago entered our national mind and bloodstream to flourish as both a creation myth and a national epic. Although the boom in biographies and histories, as well as the boost from Ken Burns’ documentary film, have made the narrative (complete with variations and agendaed interpretations) more accessible than ever, I know that at least as far back as the fifties children read and reenacted simplified and euphemized versions of William Clark’s and Meriwether Lewis’s life stories, including the latter’s mysterious death. We responded to the heroic encounters with grizzly bears and Native Americans (far less hospitable in our minds than in fact) and pretended to be intrepid adventurers in our nearby woods and streams. The dramatic expertise, bravery and old-fashioned grit of the expedition members held us in thrall, so we didn’t lend much of our attention to the cultural diversity (with the exception of the courageous “Indian maiden” Sacagawea) and amazements of collaboration that made the trip possible. Reading Frank Bergan’s Penguin Edition of The Journals of Lewis and Clark late last year (and this time not skipping the botanical descriptions, peace negotiations and lists of supplies, costs, distances, any more than I’d gloss over the catalogues in The Iliad), I found myself deeply engaged and moved by the story of one man I had hardly noticed in the text when I read a library copy over half a century ago. William Clark’s slave and companion was named simply “York,” and now his part in the great narrative, and beyond the knowable story, haunts me.
York was born into slavery (to Old York and Rose) in Caroline County, Virginia, no earlier than 1771. He “belonged” to the father of the soon-to-be-famous William Clark (and his war hero brother George Rogers Clark) and was “bequeathed” to the younger son to serve as a body servant who attended to his young master’s needs and shared his hunting and fishing forays. In early manhood, York (whom whites might have referred to as “Clark’s York”) went with his owner to Kentucky, then very much the robust frontier. He had a wife, privileges and a job far less strenuous than a field hand, timber worker, tanner or farrier, and some measure of stability, albeit always under the shadow of the lash. Very likely he remained at the family estate in other capacities while Clark served in the army, eventually as Meriwether Lewis’s captain. When Lewis, Jefferson’s carefully chosen man and understudy, invited Clark to join him on the grand tour of the Louisiana Purchase in search of the long-rumored water route westward to the Pacific, Clark chose to bring York along (no permission required from chattel, however companionable), and the black man’s life was transformed, though unlike the other explorers (except Sacagawea, Charbonneau’s purchased slave, as well as his wife), he was not a volunteer.
As York – naturally, given the laws of the time – was not one of the journal keepers on the excursion, we don’t know much of what he thought, but we do know what he did from the records of Ordway, Shannon, the Captains and others, including indigenous people, and his actions were seldom restricted by his legal status or the Corps in ways we might expect, though he’s often referred to as “my [or Clark’s] man York.” Having left the “civilized” world behind with its hierarchies and restrictive codes of behavior, its enlightened legal standards, York was allowed to hunt, scout, explore, trade and employ plant medicines, to discuss plans and routes, to speak his mind. Several sites, such as York’s Islands, bear his name. He carried a rifle and used it, once saving his master from mauling by a grizzly. He suffered the risks and privations, the excitements and bewilderments of the rest of the company, and when it was time for the historic vote among the men to decide upon winter quarters, York granted a vote.
This does not mean that he didn’t pull his oar, suffer injuries, lug huge packs, wrangle horses, skin buffalo, dig latrines, stand guard, and wade through rough water as the men dragged their keelboat against the currents, many of these tasks as demanding as slave labor, but performed in rhythm and collaboration with some of the nation’s freest men. He shared the manual tasks and perhaps bore more than his proper share of the sweat work, but he also participated in counsels with native tribes, who were often amazed at his color, size and strength. Some called him “the Raven’s son,” others tried to rub the darkness from his skin and believed he had been burned. When Mandans, Wanapams or Shoshone followed the custom of offering their women to the guests, York was among the participants. One story, recorded by both Clark and Lewis, recounts a warrior who – hoping for magical transfer of York’s “medicine” – stood guard outside the lodge where York sported with his wife.
In his June 29, 1805 entry, Clark wrote of himself, Charbonneau and Sacagawea separated from the main party under a threatening torrent of rain which was making the ground unstable. After much travail, as they eventually struck out in the right direction, “I found my servent in serch of us, greatly agitated for our wellfar” [sic]. On June 2, 1806, Lewis wrote, “McNeal and York were sent on a trading voyage over the river this morning.” He then cataloged the merchandise he supplied them with and concluded with a positive report: “in the evening they returned with about 3 bushels of roots and some bread having made a successful voyage not much less pleasing to us than the return of a good cargo to an East India Merchant.” York was trusted to succeed, and rightly so. Often when a small party of eight or ten was dispatched on a mission, York was among the few mentioned by name, though I don’t mean to suggest that he was perfect; once he left a rifle “negligently” where it was trampled and bent by a buffalo, but few others among the company managed to complete the voyage with spotless records, either. He was, however, as close to a free agent as any of the “enlisted men” in the Corps and was given responsibilities in keeping with equality, I found no record of him being admonished or punished. Surely he had few illusions about his legal status, but York was not really leading the life of a slave.
So here is the story of a man who was born into slavery yet whose circumstances allowed him to escape, for a while, many of the institution’s more brutal conventions, but the story takes an unfortunate turn. Expeditions don’t last forever; the Lewis and Clark enterprise was a round trip, and when the company returned home from the wide prairies and vast skies, the brotherhood of hardship and triumphs, it was 1806, the Emancipation Proclamation half a century and an ocean of blood away. The other “soldiers,” as they were all under Lewis’s military command, who carried rank and were subject to military laws and discipline while on the expedition, were rewarded with promotion, payment and property for their bravery and effort. York was returned to slavery.
Suffice it to say that he did not take well to his return to the regimen of involuntary servitude. What happened to York in the long run is in dispute, and the discussion has been lively. Most sources claim that he was simply no longer satisfied to be deferential and subservient, especially to officious whites, though some sources portray him as naturally surly and rebellious, which does not correspond to the Corps’ journals . Surely he remonstrated for his freedom, but less certain are the circumstances and timing under which it was finally granted and to what degree he made the best of his new situation. The variant versions of his late life are so conflicting that I can’t help considering the political agendas of the sources: did he, after manumission, reenter Clark’s servitude after failing as a freeman (Clark’s version of this as told to Longfellow is suspiciously self-serving for a slave-holder), or did he journey west again to live as a chieftain with the Crows of Northern Wyoming? Surely this is the stuff of legend, but a black man claiming to be from the Expedition and lacking other credentials was found among the Crow, assimilated but highly informed about the details of the famous voyage. And all attempts to identify him as decidedly Not-York have proved unsteady and inconsistent.
The prevalent theory among historians has long been that York besieged Clark on behalf of liberty while becoming recalcitrant and unprofitable, that he suffered the indignities and punishments of his reduced station, that he now knew enough about having certain rights that their absence made him angrier than prudence would suggest and to govern his tongue less than his fellow slaves. He wanted to be free to conduct his private life and business. He wanted to leave St. Louis and return to Kentucky, where his family still resided. He aspired to be a contract drayman and earn a living, but his life in those circumstances is not chronicled in detail. What we can be pretty certain of is that Clark, also, returned to the pre-excursion ways of an aristocratic gentleman (and politician), but without nostalgia for shared youth or camaraderie. He became a man driven as much by money as by ambition to excel. As William E. Foley recounts in Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark, Clark was, as a soldier, committed to the practice of discipline by flogging, even to the point of administering “a genteel whipping” to his pregnant slave Easter, and he frequently employed threats of “selling them down the river” to intimidate his slaves. “In most other ways a kind and decent man,” says Foley of his subject, very much in the language we often employ to excuse or forgive the Founders: “a man of his time.” So York turned in his rifle and tomahawk, then put his shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, etc., all the while longing for autonomy and the moon over the western mountains, fields of wildflowers and monumental cascades, the bison and tanagers and those satisfying foraging forays on his own.
Most of the sketchy records show that Clark eventually freed York and staked him in the drayage trade, but as Foley attests, “Clark’s belated decision to grant York his Freedom had come grudgingly and far too late to excuse his shabby treatment.” When the fallout occurred is uncertain, but he traveled with Clark to Fincastle, Virginia for the master’s wedding in 1807. He then fades from the record, only to emerge in 1811 as a slave out of favor. No longer a member of the immediate Clark household, he was hired out (a most perilous situation for a slave) and required to carry a pass whenever he left his owner’s or overseer’s residence. Clark’s perceptions of “my man York” had surely changed in the extreme, for he kept a journal from 1825 to 1828 and listed on the cover the names of all the members of the expedition. All but York.
One thing we know is that in the long-long run, York’s legacy seems as fair as any revisionist attempt at justice can be. Public statues of York as explorer are on view in Louisville, Portland and Kansas City. President Bill Clinton conferred upon him the posthumous rank of honorary sergeant in the U. S. Army. Robert B. Betts’ In Search of York: The Slave Who Went to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark pursues much of the evidence and rumor and displays an impressive gallery of American paintings honoring the Corps and prominently featuring York, usually pursuing his duties with the other explorers – evading buffalo, paddling a pirogue, following Clark along the banks of the Jefferson River, standing by the campfire, hauling a pack. In Charles M. Russell’s evocative “York in the Camp of the Mandans” and other, later illustrations York is undergoing the scrutiny of the natives, who were reported by both white and native sources to be so in awe of him that they suspected him of supernatural origin. None of this will ever count as just compensation for his service or redress for his mistreatment, but perhaps it provides some measure of optimism for a growing nation, however frozen we now seem to be.
York has also been the subject Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York by Kentucky’s current Poet-in-Residence, Frank X. Walker, and he crops up in novels and plays, as well. The explorer lives in the imaginative literature and the historical chronicles of the great Corps of Discovery, but the York who steps out of the mists of the Columbia and into my dreams did not die of cholera on the edge of the frontier where a return to slavery had broken and embittered him. He is the York of trapper Zenas Leonard’s (see John C. Ewer’s Adventures of Zenas Leonard, Fur Trader) accounts, an old and sagacious man with a sense of humor and a sense of power dwelling among the Crow of Wyoming who know him for his endurance and courage, his woodsmanship and “medicine” of both the herbal and the charismatic sorts. A former body slave become a soldier and pioneer (a national hero when viewed among the Corps), reduced again to slavery and the unrewarding shadows of history, finally released once again to find his way back to the lodges of those who saw him as an artful and useful equal, as a man. That’s the ending of the film which, now that we have the Northrup story to build on, I really want to see.